RR Interview: Andy Gullahorn on His New Album, Fault Lines

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Andy Gullahorn’s stirring new album Fault Lines was born as part of a November Kickstarter campaign, which succeeded in just twenty-four hours. With the goal eventually tripled, Gullahorn sent the project out to eager supporters in December, and it’s set for wide release on January 26th (pre-orders are available here). We asked Andy about the new album and got some fascinating insight into his musical background, his approach to songwriting, and why he might or might not be a mad mathematical scientist secretly manipulating your mind.

You produced Fault Lines yourself, but I can hear a broad range of production styles within your well-defined singer/songwriter genre.

I like having the limits there and saying “How can I make these songs sound different with this limited palette?”

You said in another interview that you have a mathematical bent. Is there a mathematical approach to songwriting?

I definitely think there’s a mathematical approach. It’s not like I’m some math genius, but there are things about math that actually excite me. The structure of it. In songwriting, I like the formula, the structure of a song. So my songs in general—there’s nothing crazy, trying to throw people for a loop. It’s fairly standard structure. I like those confines, like in production. Seeing how much you can do within the confines of a structure.

If people go through my catalog, they’ll find a lot of “if-then” songs. If a is true then b is true. As somebody who is trying to build bridges through music, it’s speaking someone’s language and saying, “I’m with you, I’m with you, and I think this.” The first part of a song might be setting up an argument so the last part of the song makes sense. If I’d just started with the last part of the song, it might not be absorbed as easily. I do think about that as a way of communication, showing people the connections between things.

It makes sense because you have a way of connecting a person with a song emotionally. Whether they’ve had the experience you’re describing in the song or not, someone can say I can resonate with that feeling. Then, you progress the person from a feeling to a truth. I see a formula in that.

It’s also not like I sit down and say, “What mathematical formula am I going to use to manipulate people this time!” It’s just, whether I want to do it or not, there are certain parts of that that are just the way I process things in the world. It’s just, for better or worse, what comes naturally to me. I’m always telling songwriters to do what comes natural. That’s the strongest thing you have to offer the world. What comes naturally to me isn’t the same as what comes naturally to Andrew Peterson or Eric Peters, and it’s not any better or worse. It’s what I have to offer the world that’s different from anybody else.

We’ve all tried to be somebody else. I’ve tried to write songs that are maybe obscure and artsy, and then I think, Wow, that means nothing to me. It doesn’t work coming from me. It just doesn’t feel true. For somebody else it could feel and be very true to them, and I love that. Part of the battle over the years was figuring out what I’m good at and what I’m not good at. To realize, I’m not going to waste my time trying to be that.

You’re one of my favorite guitar players. The versatility of your sound makes me wonder what your musical background is.

I guess I had a musical inclination as a kid. I played piano when I was very little. I quit when I was about twelve. I’m not really proficient at piano at all, but it was a foundation for me.

Do you write on guitar?

Mainly guitar, but some piano too. If I write on piano it has to be in the key of G.

I started playing guitar in high school. I mainly started playing country music, or James Taylor or Dan Fogelberg, a lot of finger picking. I don’t think I played with a pick until I had been playing about four years. I also didn’t know the names of the chords for about four years. It was just listening to a song and trying to figure out the chords; I didn’t know what they were called. Later on I’d be at a camp, and someone would teach me the names of what I knew intuitively. At some point, late high school, more in college, I started experimenting with open tunings. That affected my songwriting. It made it less country-sounding. It opened up new areas musically for songwriting.

Who was your favorite artist growing up?

In junior high and high school, it was definitely Garth Brooks. Maybe by the end of high school, maybe junior year is when I first heard David Wilcox. Guys like David Wilcox and Pierce Pettis and John Gorka—folk singer guys, they changed my outlook on songwriting. David is probably the biggest influence on my writing, playing, and the way I try to look at the world.

There’s a song on Fault Lines—“I’ll Meet You There”—that totally sounds like a Jackson Browne song to me. Just enough country, but a California singer-songwriter vibe.

I remember when I first started playing songs in high school, people would say it reminded them of Jackson Browne. I didn’t know who he was.

So obviously you weren’t copying him!

Yeah, since then I’ve gotten a couple of CDs, and I like him a lot. He has a way better voice than I do, but I do hear phrasing things, and I think, “That’s what they’re talking about.”

When does songwriting happen for you? Are you always jotting down little ideas and notes, or is it a more seasonal approach?

There are definitely seasons when it’s easier, but it’s also a constant thing. There aren’t seasons when I say, “Now I’m going to look at the world as a songwriter and pay attention.” You have to pay attention all the time. That’s a challenge, not sleepwalking through the world. Not trying to force anything, but noticing that, say, an image struck me in a certain way—always being ready to jump into it. There are some seasons when I’ve had more time at home or on the guitar and it’s easier, but it needs to be constant. I’m not half as prolific as I used to be when I was writing for a publishing company, and I had a drive to write so many songs a week. I’m not writing as many songs as I used to but I don’t ever “clock out.”

I think with any writing it’s a muscle that, when it’s well exercised, you can get pretty prolific because you’re in the groove or the ideas flow easier.

You don’t have the barriers of space and time, of all the things you do to prepare your heart for it. You’re ready. It’s like recording. When I’m in the middle of doing a record, I have the mic set up and the studio is all ready. Whereas today, if I want to record a song I’d have to pull all that stuff out, and get mic stands set up and all that. There are more barriers to get going. It’s not that I can’t do it, it’s just that it’s not as easy to do when I don’t have all the stuff set up for it.

Do you practice guitar?

I don’t. Not that I don’t need to, it’s just that I don’t. There have been times when I would tell myself that I’d love to do flatpicking, like bluegrass stuff, or try something new. Maybe a couple of years ago after the Christmas tour, there were some songs I’d start learning slowly, and I’d have a guitar around. There was one year where Ron Block taught me some scales. I had never really done any scales or knew how to play past the fifth fret of a guitar, so I asked him to show me some things that I could sit down with a guitar and do for two minutes. I’m not very disciplined at keeping up with that. Usually when I’m home there’s not much guitar playing for fun or practice. The guitar will sit in the office from airplane to airplane. Which makes me wish I was back in college, when I had time to learn new things. It’s fun when I have to learn new songs for other people, and chart them out. It’s actually enjoyable for me, but I just don’t do it very often.

Do you remember the first songs you ever wrote?

They were all depressing. The first one was called “Me, Myself, and Thy.” It was about being lonely in high school. It was a country song about somebody leaving you, like I knew what that was at 15-years-old. It wasn’t that I was like a depressed kid; that’s just what I thought I was supposed to write about.

That’s interesting, since you’re known for the humor in many of your songs now.

There were some early attempts—I use the term “humor” lightly—it was really just cheesy and stupid, but one of the early songs that I wrote was about talking to this girl about this friend I have who’s a really good guy for her—Andy is his name. It was that kind of thing. Back then people thought it was funny.

You produced a band in Brazil and then toured the country. How did that come about?

These two brothers were studying to be pastors up in Michigan, but they were both from Brazil. They had heard one of my old records—I think Reinventing the Wheel—and they emailed me and said, “We like the way this record sounds and we want ours to sound like it. Will you produce it?” At which point I said, “No.” I don’t really produce other people’s stuff. Some people are like, “I want to get off the road and just do production.” That’s not me. I enjoy parts of it, but it’s not the end goal for me. It’s not what I would want to do full time. I told them there are lots of great people I could recommend to them. They kept emailing me. Then finally I watched a YouTube video they sent of them playing live, and something struck me. I don’t even know exactly what it was. They were great singers. They were in Portuguese, so I didn’t know what they were saying, but I liked the songs.

Usually when people contact me and say they want me to produce a record for them, I might ask to listen to a song and think that I wouldn’t be the best one to offer what they’re looking for. They might want singer-songwriter, but then get in the studio and want to add a little electric guitar, full kit drums—that’s not what is appealing to me, and there are producers who are way better at doing full band stuff. But when I listened to this music, I thought, “This really could fit the kind of style that comes naturally to me.”

So, I said yes and they came and stayed here in my studio while we recorded for a week and a half. Then I did a lot of guitar work on it, and they put out a record, and it did really well in Brazil. Sony picked it up, and it went to #1 on iTunes. We did another record, an EP that released this year, and it also did really well.

What’s it like to produce a record when you don’t understand the lyrics?

It’s really different! It makes things like editing vocals hard because I don’t know where one word ends and the next begins. It all runs together. I do have the translation so I can get a feel for what the song is about.

But when you’re producing a song, you’re going to have to listen to it hundreds of times, over and over again. So what it really does is makes it to where, I’m kind of a lyrics-first person, so if I’m not into the lyrics, the aesthetics of the song can only take me so far. So being a lyrics person and listening to this record, I felt like I needed to have something to keep my attention in the song. It forced me to add elements to make it exciting for me to listen to. It helped me to be more creative musically.

I’m proud of the records we did, and I think we’re going to put out another one. So I don’t produce much. It’s just my records, and Jill’s, occasionally, and these Brazilian superstars.

You have a strict Brazil-only policy now.

Yes! I actually have had many requests to produce Brazilian records after doing theirs. I’m like, “Don’t you guys know there are a lot of producers who are way better than I am, and would do a much better job?” It’s a time thing for me. If I was doing records all the time, I could be more efficient. But when I travel on weekends, I can’t do that. Especially for independent records. I tell people that what I would have to charge them to make it worth my time would be more than I would ever tell anybody that they should spend on an independent record. There are producers who can do it way faster than I can.

Your Kickstarter tripled your goal. What does that mean for you practically?

It’s funny with Kickstarter. We did one for Jill early on in the Kickstarter days. There’s a weird mindset that happens. If you get the goal, you feel like you have this extra money to do extra stuff—we could add a stretch goal, or do a book, or do t-shirts or whatever. But then you realize, really what you’re selling is pre-orders for a CD or whatever. All those orders take time and cost money. We learned in that experience that we can’t afford to do all this stuff, both time-wise and financially.

For me, just the first day of shipping things out, I was like, “I just paid a thousand dollars to the post office.” So, it’s helpful in that it’s a great way to do pre-orders. I try to pay for my records myself, so there’s already a lot that I was planning on paying for. Producing it myself, I try to keep the costs low. I’ve seen people break the bank to make a record, and then they can never make another record. I want to do this for a long time, and have a sustainable budget, something that’s not going to kill me.

To be able to pay for the record is a huge thing. It’s a great gift. The other thing I love about Kickstarter is I like the connection that it facilitates for people who are interested in supporting it. My favorite part is filling out the envelopes and seeing the names of people who have supported it, a lot of people I know, and people I don’t. I like that personal connection.

And your brother gave you, what, $1.69?

Yes, his was really generous. Compared to how much money he owes me, it’s a small down payment. It might have been interest for the month.

Is there an ego thing with something so quantified like that, with a specific goal and a number of backers?

It’s definitely encouraging. But part of me just feels bad asking for anything in the first place. So I wanted to set my goal low. My whole career is on the foundation of setting low expectations for myself, so the goal was part of that. We reached the goal in the first day, I think. What that did for me was it took off the pressure of having to hound people about it on social media. I was like, “I don’t have to say another word about it.” And, maybe that day or that next day was when the attacks in Paris happened. The last thing I wanted to do was tweet something about raising money for my record. I thought, “If I don’t make another dime, it’s okay. I’ll make it work one way or another.”

There are themes of addiction on the record, and I imagine some of those are going to hit people hard.

I always have songs about either addiction specifically or just issues and stories common to people in recovery. There are a lot on this record because I’m writing for places that I’m playing. I’ve done retreats and conferences and I have friends who are addiction counselors. I’m really involved with the National Association of Christian Recovery. The person who’s the head of that asked me to be their art director. I’ve been at a lot of places for people in recovery who are dealing with addiction, which, by the way, is everybody. I think the people who are in recovery, who are in twelve-step programs, are the smartest ones. Everybody could use that.

I also write out of situations I’m dealing with in real life, both for myself and for encouraging other people. I can’t help but write out some of that stuff.

There are songs on the new album that speak of particular struggles, but the pain and the challenge is universal.

A song like “Not Bad Enough” is one that is encouraging to the alcoholic whose family has sent him to rehab five times, and to the family who is sending their son to rehab five times. I’ve heard feedback from both sides of that. Depending on where I play, each song on this record—and my last was this way, too—there are concerts where I’ll say, “There’s no way I’m going to play half the songs on this record.” But there are other concerts where that other half might be perfect. They’re all useful to me in different settings. There are certain settings where I could sing a song like “Dad Like Mine” and other places where that wouldn’t be a good song to sing. But I feel like each song on the record has a home somewhere.

The images in “I Want to be Well” have really stuck with me, like the lady throwing the bottles away and going back at night and digging through the garbage to find them. You don’t have to have been an alcoholic to understand that depravity.

I’m not super-creative enough to make that stuff up. That’s about a counselor friend of mine. That’s a story about her going and sitting on the curb, and she talks about sitting on the curb, digging through bottles in the trash can late at night, until she was able to picture Jesus sitting with her, not judging her but going out and sitting with her. That was the healing place she had to get to. And the story in the second verse is about my friend who is in federal prison still for embezzling all that money. These are real stories from friends who are close to me.

“God Forsaken Place” is another song that resonates with me. I remember a line in a Carolyn Arends song from years ago “There is no such thing as a God-forsaken town”—that stuck with me. You fleshed that concept out so well.

That song means a lot to me. It came out of a Laity Lodge addiction retreat. I was playing “Not Bad Enough” at that retreat, and as a response one of the speakers said that even Hell is not a God-forsaken place. I was kinda hoping that song would get me into trouble, although it hasn’t happened yet. I kinda hope that it does.

Theologically?

I’m not a theologian, but that line “even Hell is not a God-forsaken place,” I thought that seems like people would get pissed off about that. Depending on how you twist the words around. I like that it’s a shocking phrase. I’m not an agitator, but I’m kinda waiting for the emails.

[Fault Lines is available for pre-order in the Rabbit Room Store.]


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